Image and Self-Image

The peculiar history of the Teddy Bear began with a hunting expedition involving President Theodore Roosevelt.  Roosevelt was well known for his success as a hunter, but happened to be failing at this widely publicized event.  Out of concern for his image, his guides actually captured a bear and tied it to a tree so he could shoot it. Roosevelt refused.  Clifford Berryman’s cartoon in the Washington Post portrayed the story about “Teddy’s Bear”, a concept later transformed into the highly marketable “Teddy Bear” of stuffed animal fame.

This story shows an interesting contrast between image and self-image.  Roosevelt’s refusal wasn’t about kindness to bears, it was about knowing who he was, in this case, a hunter.  Shooting a bear tied to a tree isn’t hunting.  Shooting a captured bear wasn’t only a “shortcut”, it was an act that would undermine his sense of who he was. While his handlers were worried about their President’s “Great Hunter” image, Teddy Roosevelt was thinking about his self-image.  He knew that this was the kind of thing that would destroy it.

Shortcuts in Busy World

Shortcuts are incredibly tempting.  In our busy world, time and effort come at a premium which makes this business of shortcuts incredibly lucrative. In lieu of good food, we have fast food.  If it raises our cholesterol, we’ve got pills to knock it back down, saving us the diet and exercise.  If we gain weight, there are diet pills and surgeries.  Instead of sleep there’s coffee.  In lieu of counseling there are sedatives. If we can’t afford to live a luxurious life, someone will lend us the money to make it seem so.  The end product may look the same: the work gets done, the moods get stabilized, the appearance gets improved and the car is a real eye-catcher.  But through it all we remain the same. You can always tell a shortcut because it improves the image before the person, leaving the self-image lagging behind.

We’re going to take some shortcuts–it’s hard not to.  But perhaps these furry little bears can remind us that image is of little value if there is no self-image to support it. And what better symbol than a child’s Teddy Bear to remind us that we can’t give our children anything that we don’t already have, and that whatever hills we choose to climb will give them the courage to climb mountains.


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Decision Making and Bias: The George Washington Story Part 2

Facing their biases may probably be one of the hardest thing that a decision-maker or leader will ever have to do.  Facing our bias requires requires accepting a situation and the people involved “as-is”, without being distracted by what we expect want them to be.  The leader who believes that they have no bias is a hazardous decision-maker.

While the guy on our dollar bill looks pretty egalitarian, Washington had to deal with his own significant biases in order to be successful as a leader.  Some of the biases he faced included Stereotypes, Style, and Sunk Costs.


When it came to stereotypes or prejudice, it seemed everyone had something to say about the soldiers from New England, including Washington himself. Of the New Englanders or “Yankees” Washington would say that they were “exceeding dirty and nasty” with an “unaccountable kind of stupidity…”.  In addition to being hard to manage, they were known to avoid bathing and washing their clothes because they felt that this was “women’s work”.  Seriously, what could be worse than an army of stinky misogynists?!  And yet it was from among these New Englanders that he chose his two most trustworthy generals, Nathanael Green and Henry Knox. The ability to push through his own bias saved his country and his life.


By nature, Washington was a perfectionist.  As such he was actually better suited to serve in the British army, where professional soldiers and trained officers dutifully carried out well-orchestrated battle plans. It’s said that during the chaos of war, he would send instructions home regarding the details of his renovations, including specific placement of curtains, etc. Nowadays we might have called him meticulous or even “anal-retentive” (thank you Freud for those images…).  With such a small rebel force, his choices in battle had to be the exact opposite of his inclinations. Things like guerilla warfare and sneaky nighttime maneuvers across the Delaware may not have been his style but they became his destiny.  Somehow Washington came to accept the sloppy army and chaotic war that he begrudgingly inherited.  Troops aren’t curtains; he had to learn to guide what he could not control.  Instead of making choices based on how things “should be” he worked with what is.  It’s strange to think that our greatest triumphs in life could be in some area that we’re not good at—or even want to be.

Sunk Costs

The bias of “Sunk Costs” is a strong one (as we discussed here).  Whenever we’ve invested a lot of energy or resources into a plan, we are biased to stay with it even long after it’s become a bad idea. In Part 1 we discussed Washington’s indecisiveness at the disastrous battle of Fort Washington (which was, incidentally, the first “Pentagon” in American history).  The issue of “Sunk Costs” was surely a source of this indecisiveness.  Imagine investing 2 months of effort building a strong fort only to abandon it.  He had to learn to “know when to hold ‘em…know when to walk away…” at least 200 years before Kenny Rogers would deliver this sound advice.

Bias: Wishes and Expectations

Our good decisions will forever be threatened by our wishes and expectations.  Many times the choice is between “having it our way” vs. being successful. To sum it up, biographer John McCullough writes, “It was such resolve and an acceptance of mankind and circumstances as they were, not as he wished them to be, that continued to carry Washington through.” -John McCullough, “1776”.

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The Courage to Risk Making a Bad Decision: The George Washington Story Part 1

What do you do when there’s only two choices and neither one is safe?  Or more bluntly, do I have the courage to make a bad decision?

Indecisive could describe George Washington’s early military career. By all accounts he wasn’t sure he wanted the job in the first place.  Leading a largely untrained and undisciplined army, he was always wary of open battle with the British.  If there was a tough decision to make, he was likely to split his army up to  “cover all the options” in lieu of following his instincts.  This issue came to a crisis point in November, 1776 where his indecisiveness compromised his army in the battle for Manhattan, New York.  In a bit of painful irony, it was in the bosom of his own Fort Washington that his soldiers suffered the most humiliating defeat of the war.

In a bit of painful irony, it was in the bosom of his own Fort Washington that his soldiers suffered the most humiliating defeat of the war.

The choice that he had to make was whether to defend the fort or to abandon it.  Though Washington would voice a vague feeling that the fort should be abandoned, he left the decision to General Nathanial Greene.  Greene was similarly conflicted and naturally kept looking to Washington for direction, “His Excellency General George Washington has been with me for several days…but finally nothing concluded on…”.  

It was like a weird game of ‘chicken’ where they were both waiting for the other to flinch despite being on the same team.

It was like a weird game of ‘chicken’ where they were both waiting for the other to flinch despite being on the same team.  Days would pass and, perhaps by default, the decision was made to defend the fort and more than 2800 soldiers were captured.  Only ~800 survived the ensuing imprisonment. 

A Great Leader Doesn’t Delegate Failure

Maybe in the back of his mind, Washington figured that if he delegated this horrible choice, then someone else could take the blame for whatever disaster ensued. Or maybe he didn’t have the confidence that he was, indeed, the best possible ‘chooser’.  The result was Washington’s worse nightmare come true. After it was all done, he ended up taking the blame anyways, both in his heart and in public opinion.  He had the option to blame it on Greene, in fact it was even subtly suggested to him, but he chose not to do so.  Washington shouldered his part of the blame and gained the unwavering trust of one of only two generals who would stay by his side for the entire eight arduous years of the revolutionary war (the other was Henry Knox a la “Fort Knox”) .  A good leader doesn’t delegate failure.  A great leader values loyalty over popularity.

The Pain of Improvement

After this incident, Washington faced growing criticism, insubordination, and concern among other leaders about his ability to lead decisively.  It’s the type of thing that could cripple a military career. Yet, for George Washington, it may have been just the thing he needed at just the right time.  In 1776, his job was not to have all the right answers, his job was grow himself into the kind of leader that could go on to win an eight year war against very unlikely odds.


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Looking Motivated?

Steve JobsDoes motivation have a “look”?  Do you find it in an intense gaze or an eager grin? Perhaps it looks like a stack of neatly color-coded “project files”.  Or a whiteboard with the chaotic scrawl of a genius in action.

Imagine this:

You walk into the living room and your shaggy-haired friend Steve is lounging on your couch, the faint smell of marijuana in the air.  Actually, he’s been on that couch for a few weeks now.  He’s worked odd jobs, but not lately.

Steve lives from couch to couch at various friends’ houses, but they don’t mind much–he’s an interesting guy and he never stays long. You don’t have to feed him; he happily eats at soup kitchens when necessary.

If you ask him what his plan is, he’ll tell you, “I’m finding myself.”  Just the thought stresses you out, to imagine being 23 years old with no goals.  Steve doesn’t seem to mind.

The young man I’m describing is Steve Jobs, the creative rule-breaker that charmed the world with his sleek technology.  Barbara Walters calls him “Most Fascinating Person of the Year” and his biography tops Amazon’s bestseller list.Young Steve Jobs

Granted, for every Steve Jobs-ish couch-warmer, there are 1000 other young adults, languishing in the family home, telling their parents that they are “finding themselves”.  Mostly they are just finding the couch.  Your local college probably has a dozen geeks that will tell you they plan to invent the a lifechanging new “whizmogidget”.  But can we guess which one?

Finding Yourself

Who knows, maybe Job’s friends would tell you about his intense gaze or eager grin and convince you that they knew this all would happen.  But often motivation is a slow burning thing that happens inside.  It’s not a lot of words spouted at cocktail parties or the Mercedes you decide to lease before you’ve even got  a business plan.  Motivation is a mysterious alignment of talents, resources, environment and sense of purpose.  And it’s not always obvious.

Motivation is a mysterious alignment of talents, resources, environment and sense of purpose.

When Steve Jobs said he was finding himself–he meant it.  It just wasn’t until he found himself as a pioneer of artistic technology, that we could actually see what that meant.

Every day we’re writing new page in our life story: the dialogues, the scene changes, and all of the movements of  our developing character.  We are like actors searching for a scene that showcases the best of what we’ve got.

There’s Something New Besides the Shoe

The heel of my shoe fell off today and at that moment I realized how the feeling of shame had changed in my life.

Flashback to the fifth grade.  In an ever-present effort to live within a $600/month income, my parents discovered a way to buy cheaper tennis shoes than the Keds at K-Mart. They had discovered mail order.  Mail order (i.e. pre-internet) means that you order from a catalog, send a check, and then wait a long, loooong time. Timing is everything and the issue was that I needed shoes RIGHT THEN.

So the intermediate solution was some old boots my folks found at a thrift store.  This shoe was about 15 years out of vogue.  In fact, my granddad wore a very similar pair, which means that the word “vogue” probably never applied to these particular shoes. At the time, all my peers wore Nike’s.  To say I was horrified would be an understatement.

The peak of my suffering occurred somewhere around second base on a hot spring day.  We’re playing baseball in PE, and I’m wearing shorts with those big black boots (probably the only time I’ve had something in common with Go-Go dancers).  I’ve hit the ball and as I round second base my heel falls off of one of the boots.  I’m paralyzed between going for third base and retrieving my missing heel at second.  I’ve got another week to go on the boots, after all.  Finally deciding in favor of the heel, I’m almost oblivious to the guy who tags me “out”.  It’s one of those scenes that’s pretty darn funny unless you’re “that guy”.  I would have called it the worst week of my life.

So this week, part of the heel fell off of one of my shoes.  Excited and busy with other things, I didn’t get around to replacing the shoes for nearly a week.  It might have been unsightly, but it didn’t seem to matter.  When it came time to shop for shoes I almost bought a pair of boots (now in fashion, ironically).  The story come back to me like an old movie.  I recalled running around second base, the unfaithful heel that came loose, and the ridicule for breaking the standard of “cool.” What a fantastic feeling to have lived that story, now to discover that the shame of “not conforming” has been slowly evaporating from my life year by year.

Shame is such a waste, and it’s so disabling. Everyone battles their own kinds of shame: cultural idiosyncrasies, income, failed relationships, bad habits, appearance—there are so many things for us to be judged on.  Are your countertops not granite (the rolex of history’s ‘remodeling age’)?

I figure we might as well give up the shame now; some day we’ll all realize that we never needed it after all.

Is your grass a bit uncut? Did you not make the same salary, get the same degrees, wear the same clothes as your friends? Is it terrifying to speak in public? Do you have ‘black sheep’ in your family? Is your car not the best?  Are you afraid to speak up for fear of ridicule?

I figure we might as well give up the shame now; some day we’ll all realize that we never needed it after all.

Turning Points

The eraser tears at the page, worn thin from a hundred false starts.  Despite hours alone, perfect silence and brilliant mind, the math still eludes him.  This rabbit hole runs deep.

Winter has passed twice already in this room. Such isolation could make a sane mind fly off its rails.  But only a mind so detached, even derailed, could solve this problem that thinkers through the ages could not.  He was trying to write a new story about the physical world because the one he’d heard sounded untrue.

The surprise of sunlight in rainy London draws him to the window and invites him to leave the house, away from the tangled problems.  But the darkest of fears pushes back just as firmly—he knows that Death is outside. He has seen the men with the swollen, oozing sores of the Bubonic Plague and the death that soon follows.  By this year, 1664, nearby London is losing 7000 people per week and Isaac Newton was not going to be one of them.

Newton was considered to be a genius, perhaps greater than Einstein.   From his mind came calculus and the laws of gravity and motion, concepts that almost every invention of science and industry revolves around.  Every technology we have that either saves lives or makes them better could find roots in his ideas.

The most captivating forms of change are “turning points”.  A person, culture, or country can be puttering along in one direction and something happens or someone does something that changes the whole game.   In this story a genius crossed paths with a tragic opportunity.  What else but a plague could keep a brilliant young man away from the press of academia, the lure of financial ambitions or the primal pull of romantic pursuits? It’s hard to say what would have happened in this story without Newton and the plague, but I’m guessing we’d have had to wait around a while for calculus. Maybe until Einstein.  And maybe I would have had to write this article with one of those quill-thingies.

We will see a lot of research in about personal turning points; Newton’s story simply reminds us that sometimes the whole world may follow along with us and change as well.

Moneyball Changes the Game

This summer the movie “Moneyball” drew crowds of baseball fans and swooning Brad Pitt-ites alike, with impressive reviews and box-office success.  Moneyball is a change story with that irresistible theme of “one man against the system”.  In this movie Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) risks everything he has on a controversial approach to picking a baseball team.  And then he loses.

So why do we like it?

This story acts out the three forms of happiness: pleasure, well-being, and fulfillment(eudemonia), and gives the viewer very good sense of what the third one is like.

Pleasure: Garden variety pleasure can come from excitement, infatuation (sorry ladies, this movie isn’t Legends of the Fall II), indulgence, or even a comfy chair after a hard day.  In this movie we might see a glimpse of it in the moment of triumph when he successfully wrangles a clever deal with money he doesn’t have, or when he lands one of his sharp one-liners.

Well-being: Beane finds a deeper sense of happiness through his daughter, an endearing teen with just enough of that female instinct that she’s able to tether him to the important things of life, perhaps saving him from drowning in his own anxious ambition.  His only moment of relaxed focus in this movie is when he’s in a guitar store listening to his daughter’s early talents. This master multitasker becomes a serene single-tasker in the ambience of her vulnerable singing.

Eudamonia: As the story develops we realize that the movie is about something else; it’s about that kind of happiness that comes to a person when they are pursuing that one thing that tie their whole life together.  Beane shows us that the pleasure of the big check or a series win is not his biggest goal. The well-being of having status and financial security is not his dream either.  He’s decided that if he’s going to be one man alone with a great idea, then he’s going to run that idea like a racehorse.  For better or worse, richer or poorer, he has married himself to this idea and it has come to define him.  His pleasure is in living out his purpose.

So where do we fit in this model?  If I wanted him to take the big check, I’m thinking in “pleasure mode”.  If I wanted him to be near his daughter regardless of his ‘mission’, maybe that was “well-being mode”.  If I was satisfied with the movie’s outcome of his sticking with his goals, losing the Series, then that’s more of a ‘eudamonia’ mode.

Perhaps we like movies like this because they reach into a deeper layer of us, one that gets buried so easily under the pleasures and ambitions of our day to day living.